As the crowdfunding campaign for RACE AND REVOLUTION winds down, I have been reflecting on the steps I’ve taken to put this show together.
I have been teaching in a history museum for close to seven years, and before that I taught high school English, so I’ve read the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. It’s considered the most important document in American history; therefore, it’s pretty much required reading for students in the United States at some point during their schooling. And yet, I find myself in the very uncomfortable position of needing to confess that, until recently, I had only read the preamble, the one that states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and goes on to talk about Life, Liberty, and Happiness. After the Preamble is a very long list of grievances, addressed to King George, III, that condemn the King for being a colonizer. He taxed the colonies; he assigned a standing army to the colonies, and the colonists had to house the soldiers. He enforces the laws from England, as opposed to allowing the colonists to establish their own.
But what draws my attention, these days, as I prepare for this art show about the roots of racism in American history is that very last grievance: the one we never get to because, well, there are a lot of grievances. It reads:
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
These “Indian Savages”are also being colonized by the British AND the Patriots! That is one problem I have with this document. Another is where Thomas Jefferson writes, that commit “undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” This seems too convenient because it neglects to mention the cruelty with which the British and the Patriots sacrificed Native men, women, and children, mercilessly. The other problem I have is that the word “men” in the Preamble excludes most of the people living in and around the colonies. It excludes Native peoples, Africans, African Americans, women. This becomes evident when Jefferson refers to Native men as “savages”, as if a savage is a different kind of being all together.
Does this mean our nation’s declaration was one of exclusion? Does this mean that the founding fathers meant for this country to evolve without honoring all of its inhabitants? These questions have been spinning in my head for the last several years. I don’t have an answer, nor do I want to force my point of view. The objective here is to offer another perspective by showing the actual words that were used to establish and fight for this new Democracy. By pairing this language with contemporary artworks and exhibiting both to the public, I am hoping, we the people, can at least explore these different points of view and establish a new understand of how the past plays out in the present.